Why I’m Done With the “Study Smart, Not Hard” Thing

I had been enjoying the fact that I’m studying; not the studying itself. Here’s what I’ve learned.

I should mention that I haven’t actually read this very book by Marty Lobdell, but the hype about “study smart, not hard” (or “study less, study smart”, as the book title says, whichever you like) still had got me onto a whole new level of productivity as a high school student.

But if what that meant was to binge watch Thomas Frank’s take on it along with all the geeky stuff on the internet then mindlessly apply them, I would certainly have been wrong.

When I was thirteen, back in the homeschooling times, I would get a cup of iced coffee and head up to my attic after we wrapped up lunch. I would sit in front of my monitor, take few deep breaths as if it would spark the enthusiasm, then typed “khanacademy.org”, and hit “enter”.

The static friction had always been there. But momentum never lies: as soon as I start moving and get into the zone, time loses its track. I would literally spend hours to ponder over how a can of bean floats—thanks to my broken English back then — but still, that was satisfying.

I still remember when I invented the “Physics Week”: where I would spend a whole week working on my physics playlist on Khan Academy.

Of course, it never had actually happened; I’m no Rich Purnell in his lair. But at least, that’s how I’m able to brag to people about how obsessed had I been with physics.

My entire year of high school-level homeschooling (before I eventually got into public school for a couple of reasons) had been full of curiosity and enthusiasm towards math and science; genuine ones.

Now that I’m here, I won’t babble about how our public schooling system works (read: sucks), but things did change for me. I could certainly feel the competitive vibes upfront, as well as the “I don’t feel like doing anything” feels in the back of the class. A good mix of the two, I should say.

The struggle to navigate through the latter wasn’t that of a big deal (or perhaps a whole different story to tell another day); but doing so while engaging in the race towards the top of the ranks was certainly … interesting.

It marked a point in my life where I realized that, the way the world is hugely populated right now inevitably puts quantitative measures—test scores, grades, and ranks—up in the hierarchy; while qualitative ones are almost neglected. I understand that; and here’s where the “study smart, not hard” kicked me in.

Piles of effortful — yet perhaps more “rewarding”— handwritten notes turned into rather bland Notion pages and Anki flashcards; all for efficiency. The hundred percent I had given for physics turned into mere twenty percent for the sake of eighty percent of each of all the sixteen subjects in the class. Endless pursuit of deeper insights turned into restless nights for quicker maths to top the class.

All of that wasn’t for nothing, though. Mastering the “studying smartly” was, nonetheless, game changing. It was our first tests, but my grades were already on the top. The greed for the grades slowly distracted me from anything else.

Bettering my study technique had helped me squeezed out more and more free time out of my 24 hours in a day, and there I used it to study even more materials.

But those, who had fallen into the same path as mine back then, would sooner or later feel it: the burn out. I did realize that, the way I studied “smartly”, quite contrarily, had actually made me study harder.

Anyhow, I overstudied and it’s just about time to slow down. I gradually toned things down to see how it’d go. Thanks to this pandemic, I’ve been able to reorganize things. I exercised more; slept more adequate hours; and started journaling: it took me long time to realize that self care is part of living a smarter life of a student. I feel more content since then.

But however consistent I am in improving the balance, there was this particular … blandness, that had still resided in the back of my mind. Then I realized, just recently, it’s due to the fact that, although I am feeling content, all of this lacks … excitement.

I’ve developed the mindset to love the things I would otherwise hate. It also means to somehow be excited about the things that would otherwise be dull. Therefore, in response to my previous paragraph, it should my responsibility to fix it, shouldn’t it?

But as Nathaniel Drew put it in his Skillshare class I’ve just recently been getting into:

Inspiration (or creativity) really isn’t something that you can force; it’s something to respect and be receptive to.

Borrowing this idea, excitement should also then be something that I can’t really force, but something that I need to be open and receptive to.

Now, what’s this got to do with all of this that I’ve been talking to you about? It’s exactly the idea of “studying smart, not hard” or “studying less, studying smart”, or at least my wrong interpretation of it, which had essentially killed this excitement that I’ve been looking for.

Ever since I started studying “smartly” (or the way I thought I was), I had developed this habit of staying focused and not letting any distraction get in the way. While this is needed at times, it’s (or at least the way I overdid it), at the same time, the perfect way to kill inspiration, creativity, and excitement: such way of studying doesn’t allow me to be “receptive” to wild sparks of interests.

Instead, what it had left me was the joy of *the fact* that I’m studying; not the studying itself.

I remember, back in the homeschooling days, I’d stumble upon trivial details as I went through my biology playlist on Khan Academy. Those stuff, however trivial, oftentimes captivated me.

Had I been there with my current mindset, I would have told myself to get back to the main topic and just forget those things because they won’t show up on the exams. But that wasn’t the way I go about things — I didn’t even have exams. I’d stop then dive into the small things; only going back after I’m completely satisfied with them.

Those are the small things which connect the dots of the big stuff I’m studying or learning right now. Those are the things which bring excitement; things that I’d jump out of the bed for. Those are the things which bring learning … come to life.

I’m not saying doing otherwise is wrong, but being too caught up in this “race” to becoming the most effective and efficient learner had lost me in the middle of nothing. I no longer gain access to such freedom — the core of joy of learning.

I think, “smart” learners aren’t really those who’re capable of balancing their “work” and “life”. True smart learners are those who resiliently navigate through the reality, while keeping themselves open to curiosity and enthusiasm. There’s no such thing as “work-life balance” to them. They do juggle a bit between the two at times; but they work as they live.

I believe, truly smart learners don’t restrict themselves; they go out and experiment with stuff. They don’t play the safe way; they open themselves to excitement. They don’t fear uncertainty; they embrace it.

So here I am, excited to bring those genuine curiosity and enthusiasm back, to live the truly “smart” life; and I invite you to join me on this whole new, uncertain yet an exciting way of viewing the world.

And lastly, let me wrap this up by a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

Studies medicine 🧑‍⚕️. Currently writes on health ⛑, education 🧑‍🎓, day-to-day documentaries 📹, with unpopular ideas 💡 along the way. Writes in 🇬🇧🇮🇩